The Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, recently caused a stir at Westminster. Coveney demanded a voice for the Irish government in the administration of Northern Ireland, remarking that “there can be no British-only direct rule” in the province.
The next day in the House of Commons, Theresa May herself ruled out any sharing of authority with the Republic. It has become unusual to see a sitting British prime minister address the existence of Northern Ireland at all and extraordinary to see one defend its place in the United Kingdom. However, this spat between Coveney and May has raised the question of joint British-Irish authority over Northern Ireland.
Under the 1998 Belfast Agreement, the UK and the Republic are expected to act as impartial co-guarantors of the peace process and devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. Today’s reality is that a return to devolution will not happen soon. Northern Ireland has not had a government since January and cross-party negotiations to restore it have repeatedly failed.
Only a significant change in the attitudes of the major parties can end this impasse. Until the power-sharing executive is restored, Northern Ireland is set for direct rule. The British government should share that responsibility with Dublin.
The joint authority of the British and Irish governments over direct rule is essential because the current British government is incapable of neutrally administering Northern Ireland. Theresa May’s minority government depends upon its confidence-and-supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for its very survival. In effect, May cannot afford to oppose the DUP on Northern Irish issues.
This compromise in the impartiality of Westminster demands the involvement of a third party in direct rule. As the co-guarantor of the Belfast Agreement, the Irish government stands as the best option to jointly administer Northern Ireland.
A framework for the involvement of Dublin in joint authority over Northern Ireland already exists. Strand III of the Belfast Agreement founded several institutions through which the Irish government remains in contact with the Northern Irish and British governments. The British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference provide an adequate starting point for the immediate involvement of the Irish government in joint authority.
The interest of key members of the Dublin government, like Coveney, in Northern affairs ensures that these institutions could quickly be reformed into centres of a joint British-Irish administration. Neither Dublin’s nor London’s interest in Northern Ireland will wane in the next few years. The significance of the Irish border in Brexit talks means that any British or Irish government would sustain the level of attention and involvement necessary to joint authority.
Right now, the Irish government will remain impartial. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have ruled out a coalition with Sinn Féin, the only large party represented in politics both north and south of the border. As long as Sinn Féin remains in opposition in the Republic, the neutrality of the Irish government cannot be compromised as strongly as that of its counterpart in London.
While the interests of the Northern Irish people would be best represented by a return to devolution, there is no realistic pathway to its restoration right now. The two largest parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP, remain polarised on the key issues that caused the collapse of the power-sharing executive in the first place.
Sinn Féin wants official status for the Irish language and the exclusion of DUP leader Arlene Foster from government during an inquiry into a botched green energy scheme that she established. The DUP wants to legislate for the Irish and Ulster Scots languages on a like-for-like basis and to restore Foster’s position as First Minister. Both parties have staked so much political capital on these differences that any compromise would humiliate them. It seems unlikely that any deal to restore devolution will occur soon.
The only fair alternative to joint authority is another Assembly election. The last election in March left the unionist and nationalist camps uneasily balanced at forty members each. It could be hoped that another election might tilt the Assembly towards one side or the other, providing a mandate on a sectarian basis that could break the deadlock. However, another election must be understood as the nuclear option for Northern Ireland.
Including the EU membership referendum, voters in Northern Ireland have gone to the polls three times in the last eighteen months. Another election will suffer from voter fatigue. Moderates in Northern Ireland, already tired of the polarised and sectarian politics at Stormont, will feel less inclined to vote for a government that is clearly unable to function. Thriving on the resurging divisions and fervency of politics in Northern Ireland, extremists on both sides would be set to dominate the debate and results of the election.
Another Assembly election would transform a democratic vote into a sectarian battle of endurance. It would not test the policies and personalities of each party, but only their ability to secure a higher turnout than the other side. An election campaign would only escalate the rhetoric of suspicion, ignorance and hate that has led Northern Ireland to a situation wherein its political leaders cannot lead.
There is therefore no reason to expect that another Assembly election would force compromise from either side. Another sectarian headcount would only strengthen their mandates for intransigence and distrust while, at the same time, further polarising Northern Irish society. Joint authority will provide a modicum of the stability and certainty that Northern Ireland requires during critical negotiations over Brexit and the Irish border.
A period of joint authority may also enable long-term talks on the fundamental issues that put strain on any devolved administration in Northern Ireland. Stalemate and direct rule are nothing new for the Assembly. Negotiations meant to resolve disagreements on flags, parades and similar issues dominate its history, usually ending without results.
The devolved government’s record is a catalogue of failure. It has failed to deliver on the key challenges of the peace process. Eleven years after the Saint Andrew’s Agreement provision for an Irish Language Act, there remains no conclusive agreement on the Irish language. Only 7% of children attend integrated cross-community schools. Northern Ireland has no official flag, crest, anthem nor any symbol of a common identity. Society and politics remain as divided as ever between Protestants and Catholics. Devolution in its current form has failed.
Even if the major parties strike a compromise now and restore the devolved government, the same problems that brought about its collapse will resurface. If Northern Ireland is ever to govern itself in a stable and lasting manner, it must resolve these issues. The terms of a parity of esteem between Protestant and Catholic traditions must be agreed and implemented. Independent investigations into legacy cases from the Troubles must occur.
Finally, a serious effort to create an integrated education system must follow. Non-sectarian schooling is the best way to overcome the sectarian divide that corrupts Northern Irish society and politics. Joint authority will outsource day-to-day government to London and Dublin, encouraging the parties at Stormont to reach an agreement on these differences.
Nationalists should especially welcome joint authority. While Brexit and the coming Catholic majority in Northern Ireland may push the island towards unification, any transition to a united Ireland would be an extraordinarily complicated and difficult process. Nearly one hundred years of partition has utterly changed and divided Ireland. Its effect cannot be overcome with the mere legal absorption of Northern Ireland into the Republic.
Unification would require a concrete plan to amalgamate two entirely distinct jurisdictions into one. For nationalists, joint authority can stand as a logical step towards and test for unification. Dublin’s reception of some level of all-island power would serve as a valuable model for any future transition towards a united Ireland.
Nevertheless, joint authority should not be considered a stepping stone towards Irish unity – it is an emergency measure brought about by the failure of the parliamentary process in Northern Ireland. Unionists will require reassurances and guarantees to ward off fears that joint authority today does not mean back-door unification tomorrow.
Ireland can and should only be united by the democratic process promised in the Belfast Agreement. Joint authority serves as the best available way to support the institutions of the Agreement and wider peace process.
Joint authority is not an ideal solution. External rule is an unfortunate fate for a province that once stood for the virtues of peace-making and consensus-building. The people of Northern Ireland deserve a locally and democratically elected government. It is not their fault that their politicians cannot make a deal. However, the return of the Stormont executive is simply untenable until these politicians can act maturely. For the time being, direct rule by London and Dublin is necessary.